Articles Posted in Wrongful Termination

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Late last week, the Sixth Circuit decided an employment discrimination lawsuit in favor of the employer in Loyd v. Saint Joseph Mercy Oakland et al.. Apparently, a 52-year-old African-American woman was terminated from her 25-year position as a security guard at a Michigan hospital. The woman first brought charges with her union and then filed charges with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). The employee alleged that she was discriminated against and terminated because of her sex, race, and age. The hospital argued that she was not fired for any of those reasons, but rather because of a series of violations of the hospital’s policies and practices.

guard-1063331-m.jpgBackground
The plaintiff, Anita Loyd, was a security guard for 25 years with the hospital. During her tenure, she was disciplined several times for various infractions. One of these infractions included a 2001 incident when she failed to help restrain a patient. She was subsequently written up.

In 2011, Ms. Loyd was called to a room where a psychiatric patient was residing. The patient was very agitated and was acting in a violent manner. The hospital contends that Ms. Loyd was asked to help restrain the patient to ensure that no one was injured, but Ms. Loyd instead began asking the patient questions. However, Ms. Loyd argues that she did leave the room to inquire about the patient but that she also helped restrain the patient.
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As schools are letting out for the summer, some high school and college students will turn their attention to earning some cash during their break. Being new to the workplace, many students are unaware of the laws in place to protect them and others from workplace discrimination and sexual harassment. These laws protect workers who are employed by companies of a certain size, regardless of whether the job is full-time, part-time, or seasonal. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) gives the following advice to young workers:

Don’t Discriminate: You should not treat your co-workers unfairly or harass them because of their race, skin color, national origin, sex (including pregnancy) religion, disability, age (age 40 or older) or genetic information. For example, you should not tell sexual or racial jokes at work or tease people because they are different from you.

Report Discrimination: You should tell your company about any unfair treatment or harassment. Find out if your company has a policy on discrimination that specifies who you should contact about these issues.

Request Workplace Changes: You have a responsibility to tell your company if you need a workplace change because of your religious beliefs or disability. Your request does not have to be in writing, but you must provide enough information so your company can determine how to help you.

In a case settled in 2012, an 18-year-old female said she was subjected to sexual harassment by a male cashier while working at a Dairy Queen. During the six months that she worked there, the harassment didn’t stop, even after she told her manager. She called the police, who came to investigate while she was working. The manager then fired her while the police were there. She filed a claim with the EEOC, and a complaint was filed alleging sexual harassment and retaliation. The parties settled the case, with the company agreeing to pay $17,500, to provide sexual harassment training to its managers and supervisors, to post a notice about the lawsuit, and to report any additional complaints to the EEOC.
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In April, 2011, an Indiana woman’s teaching contract was not renewed by the Catholic school where she had taught for eight years. The reason allegedly given to her was that she had undergone in vitro fertility treatments, which is against the doctrine of the Catholic Church, and that as a teacher at the school she was required to abide by that doctrine. She filed a lawsuit against the diocese claiming gender and disability discrimination.

This case is similar to one filed in Missouri. In that case, a woman claimed she was discriminated against because of her disability when she was wrongfully terminated by a Lutheran school. The school said the lawsuit should be dismissed because of ministerial exception, which is meant to keep the separation of church and state by allowing religious institutions to make employment decisions without regard to federal discrimination laws. In some situations, this separation makes sense. For instance, a Catholic church shouldn’t be required to consider a Jewish rabbi as a potential leader so that they are not guilty of religious discrimination. But who this exception pertains to outside of direct ministry is still unclear, despite a Supreme Court’s ruling in January 2013. The ruling agreed with the lower court’s decision in the Missouri case that allowed the Lutheran church to terminate the teacher, but it basically said every case of this kind should be considered individually.

Based on the Supreme Court’s decision in the Missouri case, the Catholic diocese in Indiana filed a motion to dismiss the case against them, stating that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act did not apply in this situation because the school is a religious institution, and therefore is exempt. The district court judge hearing the case denied their motion, allowing the case to go forward.
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Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits workplace discrimination based on several factors, including religion. The “Employer Practices” section of Title VII states:

It shall be an unlawful employment practice for an employer –
(1) to fail or refuse to hire or to discharge any individual, or otherwise to discriminate against any individual with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of such individual’s race, color, religion, sex, or national origin; or (2) to limit, segregate, or classify his employees or applicants for employment in any way which would deprive or tend to deprive any individual of employment opportunities or otherwise adversely affect his status as an employee, because of such individual’s race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.

While this section lists several different characteristics of people, veganism does not appear as one of the categories. Veganism, a belief that one should not consume any type of animal product or byproduct, would appear to most to be a dietary decision, similar to someone deciding to cut out sweets or carbs or some other category of food for whatever reason. But in an employment discrimination lawsuit being heard right over the Kentucky border in Cincinnati, Ohio, one former employee is claiming that she was discriminated against because of her religious beliefs based on her being a vegan.

The problems started when the employee, who worked at a children’s hospital, refused to get a flu shot because the vaccination is incubated in an egg. Taking the shot would have gone against her vegan beliefs. The hospital fired her for her refusing to be vaccinated. Her discrimination and wrongful termination lawsuit claimed she was discriminated against for her religious beliefs, namely veganism. The hospital filed a motion to dismiss, stating that the former employee “failed to state a claim for a religion protected under law,” which means they don’t consider veganism a religion and didn’t think the court would either. To the hospital’s surprise, the court denied their dismissal motion because it felt the employee should have a chance to prove that her veganism is indeed a religious belief.
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University of Louisville athletes and Jefferson County Public Schools (JCPS) are frequently in the news in Kentucky. But normally they are not in the same article. Recently, however, these topics shared a headline, and it wasn’t exactly positive for either party.

Joshua Tinch played both basketball and football for the University of Louisville when he attended college there. In 2011 he was hired by Jefferson County Public Schools to work in their suspension reduction program at Iroquois High School. About two weeks after he was hired, a student came forward, claiming he had inappropriate contact with her when she was 16. Tinch was suspended during an investigation and later terminated by the school system. At the end of November, 2012, Tinch filed a wrongful termination lawsuit against JCPS and others stating he was not given an opportunity to defend himself and that his reputation was ruined when the accusations became public. The lawsuit requests that he have that opportunity to defend himself at a jury trial and asks for punitive damages.

While no adult should be allowed to continue working at a school if he or she has had an inappropriate encounter or relationship with a student, the adult should be able to address the accusations before being terminated. There have been situations in which students were upset by what a teacher or coach did or didn’t do, and they have made false allegations against them as a form of retaliation. Once such an accusation has been made, it can be very difficult for an innocent adult to clear his or her name. It is even more difficult if the accused is not allowed to tell their side of the story. In this case, Tinch is claiming that the majority of text messages that were exchanged between him and the student were from the student, and that he was not even sure who the messages were coming from. It has also been reported that the student only told someone about the alleged inappropriate contact after Tinch did not text her or see her on her birthday.
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1015485_basketball.jpgOn August 31, 2012, a Kentucky high school coach that was fired in 2008 filed a wrongful termination lawsuit against the school board. He had been employed by the school for 22 years as an assistant coach, and an additional 11 years as head coach of the boys’ basketball team. Despite his long tenure, eight district championships, and a 204-117 record, the school terminated him. His lawsuit claims he was a victim of age and race discrimination.

Kentucky is an “at-will” employment state. This term means that an employer can fire an employee whenever he pleases. However, there are certain situations in which the employee is protected. If the employer and employee signed an employment contract stating the employee has to remain employed for a certain length of time, then an employer cannot terminate the employee before the contract is up without valid reason. Otherwise, this would be a breach of contract. Union employees also have some protection against being fired at the whim of them employers.

A third type of protection for employees comes under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Age Discrimination Act. These acts pertain to employees that belong to groups of people who have a history of being discriminated against because of certain characteristics such as their gender, race, religion, ethnicity, and age. If an employer terminates or otherwise negatively treats an employee based on one of these characteristics, the employee has been discriminated against and has the right to seek compensation from the employer.

Some discrimination lawsuits ask for lost income with interest, benefits, and awards for emotional distress, all of which are known as compensatory damages. Others also ask for additional money in an attempt to punish the company for its wrongdoing. This type of damages is called punitive damages, and they are often awarded to convince the employer not to discriminate against future employees.
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An Ohio company that owns Panera Bread franchises in several states, including Kentucky, has settled a race discrimination lawsuit involving an ex-employee in Pennsylvania. The settlement will cost the company at least $76,000, possible more if additional employees come forth to say they experienced discrimination too.

The employment discrimination lawsuit claimed that the ex-employee, who is African-American, was only allowed to work in the kitchen at the restaurant, per the owner of the franchise. He was not allowed to serve customers, run the register or seek a management position because he was not to be seen by anyone. As a result, he was denied any chance of being promoted, even though he worked at the restaurant from November 2009 through August 2011. He finally left because of the alleged unfair treatment.

His lawsuit was not the first filed against the franchisee. A white manager who had been fired at the same restaurant supposedly over medical leave violations filed a lawsuit claiming he had been wrongfully terminated because he refused to stop having an African-American man run the cash register. According to the suit, a district manager said the franchisee would “(expletive) if he got a look at that.” The employee that was being allowed to run the register is the one who filed the above lawsuit in January 2012.

The African-American employee will receive approximately $10,000 from the settlement. In addition to paying damages and attorneys’ fees, the franchisee was also ordered by the judge to place a notice in local newspapers in every state he has a restaurant, notifying other employees of the settlement in case they were discriminated against as well. They will have the opportunity to join the lawsuit and receive 70 cents per hour for every hour they worked after their first year. This amount represents the extra money they could have earned if they had been given the chance to be promoted after their first year of employment. One attorney estimates that 200-300 current and former employees that were employed by the franchisee between January 2008 and January 2012 may be entitled to this compensation.
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Earlier this year, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a case where a teacher at a Lutheran School had filed a wrongful termination suit under the Americans with Disabilities Act. The district court dismissed the case, stating she could not file a workplace discrimination lawsuit because she was covered by the “ministerial exception.” The Court of Appeals overturned the ruling based on the fact that the majority of her day was not spent in a ministerial capacity. However the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that she was indeed covered by the doctrine and that the school had the right to terminate her.

The ministerial exception doctrine gives religious institutions the freedom to hire individuals that they think are most qualified to minister to their members without worrying about discrimination charges. But who constitutes a “minister” at a church-affiliated school or hospital and exactly what employment law issues are covered is still unclear. Three recent Kentucky employment law cases involving ministerial exception had differing results.

The first two cases involved two professors at the Theological Seminary in Lexington, Kentucky. Both taught at the Protestant school, but neither were followers of the school’s faith. In 2009, the seminary cut staff. Both men filed wrongful termination lawsuits, stating they were tenured professors and that they could only be terminated for failing to do their jobs or for misconduct, not for budgetary reasons. But both the district and appeals court ruled against the professors because of ministerial exception, stating the school has the right to decide who to terminate and that the government cannot intervene.

In the third case, a Louisville, Kentucky pastor was fired by the church he led from 2005 to 2010. In this case, the pastor was not claiming wrongful termination, but rather a breach of contract. A breach of contract occurs when and employer and employee agree to certain terms and sign a contract, the one party does not uphold their part of the agreement. In this case, the pastor claimed he was over $64,000 in salary and benefits by the church and he wants the church to pay him this amount. The Jefferson County Circuit Court refused to hear the suit based on the ministerial exception. In this case, the employee was an actual minister, so the court’s decision makes sense in that respect.
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43211_fishing_pole.jpgBass Pro Shop is known for providing equipment of all types to those who love the outdoors. Their stores are filled with camping, hunting, and fishing gear, and often have indoor fish ponds and activities to keep children occupied while their parents shop. According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), one thing you may not find there is a large number of minority employees.

In a lawsuit initially filed in 2011, the EEOC alleges that Bass Pro Shops in several states, including Indiana, practice racial discrimination. Minorities had been denied retail positions in the stores since at least 2005, the lawsuit claimed. In May 2012, the federal court ruled against the EEOC, stating there was not enough evidence provided in the initial case to prove discrimination occurred. The case was dismissed without prejudice, which meant the EEOC could file an amended complaint.

Which is exactly what the EEOC has done. On July 20, 2012, an amended complaint was filed against the retailer with 247 pages of information that was allegedly gathered over a two-year period. The suit states that the discrimination starts all the way at the top with the founder and owner of the entire chain, who supposedly said, “This company will never have a [racial] quota system because that’s not the kind of people I want working in my stores.” Specifically in Indiana, the lawsuit says a manager of the Bass Pro Shop there was throwing away certain employment applications because the names of the applicants sounded like they were minorities and that they “don’t make good employees.” The lawsuit also states that retaliation occurred against Bass Pro Shop employees that spoke out about or tried to stop the discrimination.

The company has responded to the lawsuit by stating the EEOC is stereotyping Bass Pro Shop and its customers. It says those who love the outdoors are being stereotyped as discriminating people who don’t support equal opportunity for everyone. The EEOC denies this claim.
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Kentucky and Indiana are both “at-will” employment states. What this means is that employees can be demoted or fired by their employers at any time. Workers who have certain types of contracts with their employers or are union workers may be more protected when it comes to being demoted or fired by their employers. If it is legal for employers to fire employees for pretty much any reason, how do Kentucky and Indiana wrongful termination lawsuits even exist?

An employee can claim wrongful termination for a variety of reasons. The most obvious is if an employee has a written contract to work a certain length of time and the employer fires him before the contract is up. Breaking a union contract through firing may also lead to a wrongful termination lawsuit, but only after the proper grievance procedure of the union is followed.

Most often, wrongful termination cases arise from other situations. If someone thinks they have been let go because of their race, religion, age, gender, or disability, this may constitute workplace discrimination and they may be able to take legal action. In a recent Kentucky wrongful termination case, a former vice president of the Courier-Journal has filed a lawsuit stating he was wrongfully terminated because of his age. He was let go at age 62 and was told that his job was being eliminated. Subsequently the newspaper allegedly hired someone who was younger than him to fill the position. Employees over the age of 40 are covered by the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), which prohibits employers from terminating employees based only on their age.

If an employee is fired for trying to protect their legal rights, that may also qualify them for wrongful termination. For example, if someone with a disability requests a reasonable accommodation at work and they are fired, they may have been wrongfully terminated as retaliation for asserting their rights. In the case of an Indiana tennis coach who just settled a wrongful termination lawsuit against Ball State, her suit alleged that she was fired as retaliation for her sexual discrimination complaint. The university recently settled with her for $710,000.
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